Three common types of dashes are the hyphen, the en dash and the em dash. A regular dash is called a hyphen and is used for hyphenated words (ex-Principal Smith). The en dash (pronounced "N" dash) shows ranges between numbers, such as, "The package will arrive in 1--2 weeks." The em dash (pronounced "M" dash) shows a break in speech or thought, such as in this sentence: "I would like two---no, three---scoops of ice cream." When you need to insert an em dash in text, there are several ways to do so. These examples apply to Microsoft Word, but the steps are similar in other word-processing programs.
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Insert an em dash as a symbol. In Microsoft Word, place your cursor where you want the em dash. Select "Insert" and then "Symbol" from the menu commands at the top of the screen. A small window will open, displaying the most recent symbols used. If the em dash does not show up, click "More Symbols" and then select the tab entitled "Special Characters." Choose "em dash" from the list of characters. Note that a keyboard shortcut will also show up for the em dash.
Use a keyboard shortcut to insert an em dash. Place your cursor where you want to insert the em dash. Use the keyboard shortcut you saw when using the symbols menu in Step 1. For example, if the symbols menu says the shortcut is "Alt+Ctrl+Num-" then you hold down the Alt and Ctrl keys while depressing the minus key on the numbers keypad (the area to the far right of your keyboard). Some laptops and smaller keyboards without a numbers keypad will have different keyboard shortcuts. Use the help menu or the symbols menu to determine the keyboard shortcut for your system.
Insert an em dash automatically as you type. First, enable automatic formatting by opening "Word Options," turning on the AutoCorrect Options and selecting the "Hyphens(--) with dash (---)" check box. Setting these options varies according to the version of Word you own, so use the Help menu if you need more assistance. Now, when you type two hyphens in a row, Word automatically turns them into an em dash.
Tips and warnings
- To remember the difference between an en and an em dash, look at your computer keyboard. The "n" is a "skinnier" letter from left to right; the en dash is skinnier as well. The "m" is a longer letter from left to right; the em dash is longer too.
- Today's industry standard is to avoid spaces on either side of em dashes. Your company's style guide or your individual preference may be to add spaces. Choose one and be consistent throughout your document.
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